Indie bookstores have one up on commercial chains

A view of indie bookshops and corporate chains

In an article by AZ (Arizona) Night Buzz, independent bookstores in Arizona are continuing to fight the good fight against commercial chains such as Barnes and Noble and Borders by taking a new approach: specializing their stock. For instance, one of the surviving bookstores in Tuscon, Clues Unlimited, primarily offers new and used mystery books.

While this particular strategy deserves kudos, I have to give greater weight to the tried-and-true advantage that the article mentioned near its end: the “social function” of a local, independent bookstore. A sense of community within a bookstore is not only what preserves the uniqueness of that particular business, but can be developed by a customer into a weekly experience–as regular as, say, going to church or the grocery store.

How, you may ask, can one buy books on a regular basis in this economic climate?

Most people that ask this question continue to pop into the mega-store, get their $5 special lattes and buy new books at prices that, frankly, are insultingly expensive for a paperback. But they buy it with its deceptive “20% off” sticker, so it’s a justified purchase if they got it “on sale.” A lot of people don’t realize that independent bookstores can’t afford to stock 100 copies of Dan Brown’s latest novel, so they don’t get a wholesale price, and therefore have to work with a narrower profit margin. But if you have a book budget, you can still shop at an independent bookstore and pay a couple dollars more for each title. At the end of the year, it may add up to a sacrifice of one new release, but you’re sacrificing it to save your neighborhood and culture.

Is it worth that 20% discount to stand in a line under fluorescent lighting, listening to people plug specials over the intercom, just to walk up to a cashier who couldn’t care less about you and your book and is just there to ask you if you want to upgrade your purchase or get a membership card (because they have to ask you this or they’ll lose their job)?

Or would you rather sink down into a cozy chair among fellow bibliophiles, sipping coffee and enjoying an atmosphere where people take their time to really enjoy books? You can ask the bookstore clerk if they can recommend similar titles, and nine times out of ten, they can do it. Sometimes you get a local discount. Sometimes the book purchase is also a ticket entry to an author event that night. For the regular price of the book, you can enjoy what has been called an “outpost of civilization:” the corner shop, the independent bookstore, the place where people still come together out of the love for stories, for fresh pages, for community.

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